Mike Clark let go of the trigger and let the Sawzall wind down, setting it on the floor as soon as the blade stopped recipro-cating. Pacing back a few steps, he asked, "whaddya think?" Hunched down, half stoked, half shocked, Ryan Lewis replied, "I'm kind of in the heart attack stage right now. We just cut my $25,000 truck in half." With the framerails severed just behind the cab, the '01 ExtraCab Tacoma looked sabotaged and forlorn. From this point, the truck was either destined for greatness or condemned to an unpleasant life as a hacked, crooked creation. There was only one direction to go: forward. Ryan explained the scenario further: "We built the truck in Mike's garage.
There wasn't enough room around the truck to stand back and visually check to make sure everything was clean and symmetrical, so we just had to measure carefully and trust ourselves to build it right. Fortunately, we nailed it." Why cut the truck in half? As soon as a linked rear suspension appears on the menu, fabricators run into two problems when working on a Tacoma:
First, the rails are widely spaced and leave almost no room to mount a coilover outboard of the frame. Second, the height of the frame above the rear axle limits bump, or compression, travel. Heart attack or not, Lewis knew that a bimetal Sawzall blade was vital to realizing the full off-road potential of his Tacoma. The rear-section rebuild required about a dozen 20-foot sticks of round tubing, chiefly 4130 chromoly, with a helping of dimple-died plate added for good strength, good looks, and good measure.
Five inches of compression travel were gained. Other essential elements, such as shock mounts and a fuel cell, were incorporated into the maze of triangulated tubing. Like the same-named team that ventured into unknown territory two centuries ago, Lewis and Clark spend most of their waking moments delving into the realms of potential and possibility -- potential and possibility of Toyota off-road suspension. Ryan Lewis and Mike Clark are the entire staff at ESB Fabrications.
Long before he ever thought he'd make a living at off-road fabrication, Mike Clark was an off-roader looking for better suspension performance from his '90 Toyota 4x4. Mike ordered a front suspension kit from a manufacturer claiming 17 inches of travel. When installed, the kit actually cycled 12 inches and wasn't up to the level of quality he expected for the money he'd spent, so he decided to build his own front end. Although ESB came to life in a garage, Mike and Ryan work out of a bona fide shop these days.
"I actually made more money out of the garage!" Mike told Off-Road. "There was hardly any overhead to pay, but my neighbors complained about the noise and were afraid I'd burn the place down. Getting into a shop became a must." Today, ESB offers both front and rear suspension kits for Toyota pickups, both 2WD and 4WD, from the mid '80s to '04, with more products under development. ESB builds each suspension kit in-house, one at a time.
After spending a day riding in, crawling under, and perching on top of Ryan's Taco' in the name of good photos and investigative journalism, we can say without reservation that the two-slice truck-building method was the right way to go. The Tacoma has plenty of bump travel, both front and rear, and soaked up repeated sky shots without drama or metal-to-metal clanking. All is not perfect, however.
"I know this truck will do a lot more if I push it harder," confided Ryan. "The parts we've built are good to go. The weak point is the stock drivetrain. If the tranny dies or if the rear axle lets loose, I've got to spend a lot of time getting it running again. I'll get it figured out, though." Check out the photos and captions for the rest of the details. Remember: slice at your own risk.
In addition to the welding and wrenching that he does at ESB during the week, Ryan can be found in the dirt on weekends and holidays shooting video for his film company, Bonzen Productions. Bonzen's latest DVD release, Revalved, captures the most recent happenings in the desert racing and prerunning world. From a ride-along with Trophy Truck driver Pete Sohren in the Laughlin Leap to a weekend at the Glamis dunes to MDR to ROR, Revalved brings high-speed, long-travel action together with a hard-hitting soundtrack. Bonzen's previous release, Still Dirty, has much of the same flavor and is still available.